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Theater Review: Café Society Swing

Historical music diluted by a history lesson

Allan Harris in Cafe Society Swing, 59E59 Theaters, NYC 12-14
Charenee Wade in Cafe Society Swing, 59E59 Theaters, NYC 12-14
Charenee Wade, Allan Harris and Cyrille Aimée in Cafe Society Swing, 59E59 Theaters, NYC 12-14
Evan Pappas in Cafe Society Swing, 59E59 Theaters, NYC 12-14
Cyrille Aimée in Cafe Society Swing, 59E59 Theaters, NYC 12-14

Café Society was a nightclub in Greenwich Village that, for a decade beginning in 1938, presented the cream of the era’s jazz artists, as well as comics, gospel groups and folk singers. Cheekily dubbed “The Wrong Place for the Right People,” the venue was run by entrepreneur Barney Josephson, a left-leaning proponent of integration at a time when race mingling, both onstage and in the audience, in places where music was presented was virtually unheard of, even in hip Manhattan. Josephson, often relying on suggestions from famed talent scout John Hammond, booked both black and white performers (mostly black), including Billie Holiday, who first sang her controversial “Strange Fruit” there, as well as Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Paul Robeson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and many others. An unrepentant radical, Josephson often showcased politically themed events at Café Society and was hounded by Commie-hunting journalists and politicians for his efforts. After his brother Leon was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy era, the club’s attendance went downhill and it soon closed, leaving in its wake a reputation as a game-changer and sacrificial lamb.

All of this information is delivered during the course of the new off-Broadway musical Café Society Swing by a narrator between musical numbers. All of this information can also be found in Wikipedia, and therein lies the problem with Café Society Swing, which opened Dec. 21 at the 59E59 Theaters in New York. Rather than weave the fascinating, historically significant story of this important venue and club owner into the action, it’s relegated to side-of-stage spoken narrative by one individual, in the first act playing a journalist gunning for Josephson, then a sympathetic bartender in the second.

Through no fault of that actor, Evan Pappas, who also sings a few numbers, the show comes screeching to a halt every time the music stops and he picks up the tale, written by Alex Webb. What ultimately saves Café Society Swing, directed by Simon Green, is that music, which is so damn good you find yourself wishing they would just dispense with the story altogether, rename the production The Music of Café Society and hand out a Playbill that gives the backstory to anyone who wants to know it.

Fronting the excellent eight-piece band-Webb on piano, Mimi Jones (bass), Shirazette Tinnin (drums), Benny Benack III (trumpet), Camille Thurman (tenor saxophone), Brent White (trombone), Bill Todd (alto saxophone, clarinet) and Allan Harris (guitar)-are vocalists Cyrille Aimée, Charenee Wade and Harris, who deliver between them excellent arrangements of period standards such as Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Cole Porter’s “What is This Thing Called Love?” alongside several Webb originals. As a concert, Café Society Swing is a rousing success. As a musical, it lacks sorely, solely because it dies in its tracks every time that music gives way to the lackluster account intended to put the timeless music into context.

(The show closes on Jan. 4.)

Originally Published